Sarah Aroeste: Monastir

Soundtrack of Memory

Listening Post 331. There’s an exquisite balance in Sarah Aroeste’s homage to a bygone community that lives in her heart under a bygone name. Bitola is North Macedonia’s second largest city, a place of Ottoman and Neoclassical architecture, of commerce and culture. For Aroeste’s family it is (and officially was until 1913) called Monastir, a refuge that became home: After Spain expelled its Jewish population in 1492, many migrated to the Ottoman Empire, bringing their faith, customs and language—medieval Spanish that evolved into Ladino. Monastir’s Sephardic community flourished for 400 years, peaking around 1900. But the Balkan Wars and World War I unraveled the Ottoman universe, prompting large-scale emigration. Then German dominance in World War II resulted in the murder of 98 percent of Bitola’s remaining Jews. In the Monastir diaspora, memory survived: Aroeste, an American singer-songwriter trained in classical opera, gravitated toward Sephardic music after a summer studying and performing in Israel and began including Ladino songs in her repertoire—soon realizing that Ladino, not opera, was her true passion. Monastir explores the essence of her ancestral community in 10 traditional and contemporary songs, performed in Ladino, Macedonian and Hebrew; Aroeste herself sings lead on only four tracks, strategically deploying the talents of more than 30 collaborating artists from five countries. Mi Monastir (video 1) breathes nostalgia for the city’s smells, sounds and textures, while Od Bitola pojdov (I Left Bitola, video 2) echoes an era when homesickness was easily resolved. The album’s lyrical prism is Espinelo, the ballad of an abandoned child raised by royalty—an allegory for a people cast out by the Spanish king and adopted by the Turkish sultan (video 3). Passion burns in the sadness of Jo la keria (I Loved Her, video 4) and percolates in the carefree Edno vreme si bev ergen (Once I Was a Bachelor, video 5). In Monastir, Aroeste composes history, memory and music into a magnificent portrait, bringing the past to life. (Aroeste Music)

Note: Sarah Aroeste has released seven albums and is one of few artists today writing original songs in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). She first performed in Bitola/Monastir in 2017 and was moved by the reception she received in a city that has had no Jewish residents since World War II. Monastir draws not only on research and field work but also on the stories of the artist’s grandfather, who left the city for America in 1913, and of her beloved cousin Rachel Nahmias, one of the handful of Jews who survived the wartime deportations from the city, who made her way to America and, at age 103, participated in the landmark tribute to her home town. In addition to the songs, the album’s 17-page booklet is a cornucopia of history, photos and memorabilia.

Sarah Aroeste: Monastir
Sarah Aroeste (U.S.A.): Vocals, executive producer
Shai Bachar (Israel): Piano, keyboards, musical producer, arrangements
Vevki Amedov (Macedonia): Vocals
Sefedin Bajramov (Macedonia): Vocals
Yehoram Gaon (Israel): Vocals
Yehuda (Shuky) Shveiky (Israel): Vocals, flamenco guitar
Odelia Dahan Kahila (Israel): Vocals
Talia Yona Kliger (Israel): Vocals, backing vocal producer
Mimi Markovski (Macedonia): Vocals
Gilan Shahaf (Israel): Vocals
Helena Susha (Macedonia): Vocals
Gergely Barcza (Israel): Saxophone, Balkan woodwinds
Dan Ben Lior (Spain): Guitar
Itamar Doari (Israel): Percussion
Yonnie Dror (Israel): Wind instruments
Fima Ephron (U.S.A.): Electric bass
Akiva Eskayo (Israel): Spoken word
Shay Hamani (Israel): Electric bass
Rony Iwryn (Israel): Percussion
Rachel Kornberg: (Monastir/U.S.A.) Spoken word
Yael Lavie (Israel): Qanun
Nasrine Rahmani (Spain): Percussion
Dave Richards (U.S.A.): Acoustic bass
Uri Sharlin (Israel): Accordion
Yaron Suriano (Israel): Acoustic bass
Tal Yadin (Germany): Guitar
Sui Generis Women’s Choir (Israel)
Estreja Ovadija Mara Kindergarten Chorus (Macedonia)

 

Mi Monastir / My Monastir
Lyrics & music: Sarah Aroeste

From the artist’s album notes: I wrote Mi Monastir based on memories of my grandfather and my cousin Rachel. I have taken many stories of their generation and tried to convey them in a song filled with honor for them and the city they held so dear. Among many images I allude to in the lyrics, the mezuzah is one that stands out. As Rachel’s family was taken away on March 11, 1943, their non-Jewish neighbor took their mezuzah, the signpost on Jewish doors, planning to return it to the family one day. Indeed, years later, the mezuzah was given back to Rachel.

(From the Ladino lyrics)
Monastir, we do not forget you/Your children honor you
We breathe your smells/Waiting to return
We hold on to your voices/Waiting to return

Monastir, bring me home/Where the dusty streets call to me
The stars on the walls speak to me/The memories sing to me

I see you walking in the courtyard/Laughing with cousins and friends
Eating taralikus/And always standing tall
Playing little games/And always standing tall

Your spirit is pure joy/Even flowers laugh with you
Tickling us with stories/All the honor to you
Cherishing the moments/All the honor to you

Across my mind I see a fez, a crochet, a mezuzah
Kindness, knowledge and tzedaka
A tableau of mixed colors that is you, Monastir

 

Od Bitola pojdov / I Left Bitola
Lyrics & music: Traditional

(From the Macedonian lyrics)
I left Bitola/I came to Prilep
Prilep girls/They are all tobacco girls

Bitola, my beloved Bitola/My dear Monastir

I left Prilep/and I came to Veles
Veles girls/They are all potters

I left Veles/and I came to Skopje
Skopje girls/They are all millers

I left Skopje/I came to Tetovo
Tetovo girls/They are all bean farmers

I went everywhere/But I returned to Bitola
Bitola girls/They heal all wounds

 

Espinelo, ft. Yehuda “Shuky” Shveiky
Lyrics: Traditional/Music: Sarah Aroeste

From the artist’s notes: Espinelo was a romance transcribed by ethnomusicologist Max A. Luria in his fieldwork in Monastir in 1927, without melody. I have used Luria’s song text which he traced back to 1562, but while it was preserved orally in Monastir, there is no known melody from the Eastern Sephardic tradition to accompany it. And so, I have set it to music. My version features Israeli flamenco star Yehuda “Shuki” Shveiky and tells the epic tale of Espinelo, whose mother threw him into the ocean to avoid the scandal of having had twins (superstition held that a mother who birthed twins was an adulteress, having slept with two men). Fishermen rescued him and presented him to the childless king who took him in and raised him. In his royal station, Espinelo was fawned over by the ladies of Turkey, an allegory for the Jews who were kicked out of Spain and found salvation in the Turkish Empire— much like my own family.

(From the Ladino lyrics)
Paris is sleeping/From the deep sleep that came over him
On a soft bed/With a coverlet of carnations

Three ladies watch over him/The most elegant ladies of Turkey
One is combing his beard/The other is cooling him with a fan
The youngest of them/Is mopping his brow

The Moorish king/Went to visit him:
“Who was your father, Espinelo/Who honored you so?”
“I am the son of the King of France/And the Queen of Turkey
My mother, with great pride/Published a proclamation:
‘Every woman who bore twins/Was to be called an adulteress’
God will not favor injustice/The dishonor fell upon her

She gave birth to me and to Diligdoze/Both at one time
She had Diligdoze cared for/And threw me into the sea
Fishermen who were fishing/Saved me from the sea”

They took him to the king/He adopted him as his son
They put him in the high towers/The highest in the town

Three ladies watch over him/The most elegant ladies of Turkey
One is combing his beard/The other is cooling him with a fan
The youngest of them/Is mopping his brow

 

Jo la keria / I Loved Her, ft. Yehoram Gaon
Lyrics & music: Traditional

Note: Yehoram Gaon is a renowned Israeli singer, actor, author, director, TV host, exemplar of Sephardic culture and a former member of the Jerusalem City Council.

(From the Ladino lyrics)
I loved her/More than my own life
More than her mother did/I loved her
And since then/I pass through the world
Remembering that cherished love.

One morning/In the cold of winter
In my arms/She passed away
And since then/I pass through the world
Remembering that cherished love

Where are you, my heart?/I am not able to breathe
The pain is so deep/I cannot endure

I wanted to weep/But I have no more tears
I loved her so much and she left/Never to return again.

 

Edno vreme si bev ergen / Once I Was a Bachelor, ft. Sefedin Bajramov
Lyrics & music: Traditional

From the artist’s notes: A non-Jewish man wanders through Monastir’s Jewish quarter and tries to convert a Jewish girl to become “Slavic,” in a song that surely offers a window into pre-WWII culture of the city as populations lived side by side. This recording features Macedonian star Sefedin Bajramov, who was born and grew up in a house owned by Monastirli Jews before the Holocaust.

(From the Macedonian lyrics)
Once I was a bachelor/Even a job I didn’t have
La, la, la, la, la, la/Even a job I didn’t have

So I left for a stroll/For a stroll in Bitola
La, la, la, la, la, la/For a stroll in Bitola

For a stroll through Bitola/Through the Jewish neighborhoods
La, la, la, la, la, la/Through the Jewish neighborhoods

There I met a Jewish girl/With messy hair
La, la, la, la, la, la/With messy hair

And I told her in Slavonic/For her to become Slavic
La, la, la, la, la, la/For her to become Slavic

 


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